California students aim to break world solar-powered car speed record

screen-shot-2016-10-31-at-11-00-24-pmSAN LUIS OBISPO (CA) – Students from Cal Poly’s Prototype Vehicles Laboratory (PROVE Lab) have designed a car to break the international land speed record for solar vehicles. The team intends to smash the 11-year-old official (FIA) record of 23.5 mph and the more recent Guinness World Record of 56.75 mph. The record attempt is scheduled for June 2017 in the Mojave Desert.

Previous record holders in competitions such as the World Solar Challenge made extensive use of batteries. Cal Poly’s car has no batteries or any other energy storage; it relies entirely on solar power.  “After a year of rigorous engineering and development, we think we have a car that can exceed 65 mph,” said Will Sutton, the student project manager. “We want to inspire the public to see how quickly solar power is advancing.”

The PROVE Lab team includes more than 60 students. “These students aren’t competing against other universities – they’re battling the laws of physics,” said PROVE Lab’s founding faculty adviser Dr. Graham Doig, who is a professor in the university’s Aerospace Engineering Department.

The student team represents a range of majors and expertise. “A project like this needs so much more than just engineering,” said David Alexander, chief engineer and an aerospace engineering senior. “It’s like a startup car company; we combine our technical side with a strong team of marketers, designers and communicators.”

According to Katie Breitenstein, a manufacturing team member, “There aren’t any restrictions on the car because a speed record is all about how fast you can go over a timed mile with whatever technology is available. This means we can use Formula One-style carbon fiber composites to make the car as light and as strong as possible.”

The composite body is so lightweight that two people can pick up and carry the car, yet the material is four times stronger than steel. The car runs on 2 kilowatts of power — about the same as a hairdryer. In order to squeeze more speed out of the solar array, PROVE Lab has had to use Cal Poly’s sophisticated wind tunnel and simulation technology. The result is one of the most aerodynamic vehicles ever designed.

At top speed, the car experiences just 11 pounds of aerodynamic drag – 10 times less than a Ford F-150 at the same speed. The PROVE car achieves this performance using commercial-grade solar cells. “These cells are just like the ones you can get on your roof, and they’re making this car fast enough to get a speeding ticket on the freeway,” said Christiana Ushana, a member of the software engineering team.

The team is pairing the world-record run with a middle school education program – the PROVE Lab World Record Challenge – focused on student groups typically underrepresented in the science and technology fields. Starting in January 2017 and funded by a $63,000 grant from the American Honda Foundation, the program will engage up to 100 students in designing their own small-scale vehicles. They will learn about renewable energy and code for autonomous driving, and in the process, develop an enthusiasm for careers in science and engineering.

The construction of the 20-foot-long PROVE car is already underway, with many of the internal mechanical components being machined in-house by students in Cal Poly’s shops. PROVE Lab has partnered with numerous engineering and energy companies worldwide.

“We’re confident that our design can do the job, but we’re actively looking to sign more partners by the end of the year to ensure we can turn this dream into reality,” Sutton said.

PROVE Lab will share the build process through its website and social media as the team moves toward their historic record attempt in June.